Op-Ed

Changing scene raises doubt about future of Wynwood

Mural with live model adorns a wall in Wynwood, a neighborhood and arts district undergoing rapid change.
Mural with live model adorns a wall in Wynwood, a neighborhood and arts district undergoing rapid change. hgabino@elnuevoherald.com

With many of Miami’s most recognizable neighborhoods, you know what you get. Miami Beach has its bustling beaches and nightlife scene. Little Havana is largely a working-class Cuban enclave with local character. Coral Gables is the affluent suburb with historical charm and old money.

But what about Wynwood, which has become one of the most recognizable neighborhoods to those in and out of Miami? For the past 10 years or so, the neighborhood has been billed as the Wynwood Arts District in part because galleries and artists began setting up shop in the neighborhood, but also after developer Tony Goldman began blanketing the neighborhood with murals.

But Wynwood Arts District has largely ceased to exist. The latter part of the name is a vernacular vestige from an era was once accommodating to artists and galleries. The artists left what seems like eons ago, when rents began creeping upwards for the cavernous spaces they had. The most successful and acclaimed galleries (Fredric Snitzer Gallery, David Castillo Gallery, Gallery Diet, and Emerson Dorsch, to name a few) began retreating within the last two years, with many citing the changing direction of the neighborhood.

Today, it’s a mix of trendy restaurants and bars, and name-brand retail tenants.

There’s still arts destinations in the neighborhood. There’s the Margulies Collection and the Rubell Family Collection, two enormous troves of blue-chip art from two factions of the world’s leading collectors who have been in the neighborhood long before it was popular and are must-see stops for Art Basel visitors. There’s also a few local galleries such as Alejandra Von Hartz Gallery, Dina Mitrani Gallery and the Screening Room that have continued to be good stewards to the neighborhood.

Wynwood today is a far cry from what was once the heart of Miami’s arts scene, and the swiftness of the change is staggering to many.

But the idea of Wynwood as a cohesive arts district is long gone, replaced by an awkward patchwork of competing ideas and interests. Before, the popular NW 2nd Avenue strip at the center of the neighborhood was almost entirely art galleries. Today, it’s a mix of trendy restaurants and bars, name-brand retail tenants such as Warby Parker, Aesop and Ducati and high-end speciality goods stores.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this change, but it is a far cry from what was once the heart of Miami’s arts scene and the swiftness of the change is staggering to many. The early arts settlers took up shop in the area roughly 20 years ago. The formation of the arts district began gaining traction in the early 2000s and peaked within the past few years before the bloodletting began.

While many were driven out by rising rents, many left voluntarily. Emerson Dorsch, one of the earliest galleries in Wynwood, owned their building and had recently renovated it before selling and purchasing a building in a yet-to-be announced location in Little Haiti. In a story that the Herald had done on Gallery Diet’s move to Little Haiti, gallery owner Nina Johnson-Milewski disclosed that she had gotten out of her lease early to move.

The failure to be able to hold onto the arts community in the area seems like a short-sighted, profit-driven maneuver that undoes many years of progress. As I’ve written about in the past, the arts help create jobs and bolster businesses in Miami. There’s no doubt that the profits that Wynwood property owners have made and stand to make in the neighborhood are in large part because those galleries and artists helped attract people to the neighborhood, so it’s disappointing that so many of those who were part of making the neighborhood no longer feels that it is for them.

Now Wynwood is fast becoming a case study in what can go wrong when a neighborhood fails to support the cultural community it sought to create. The arts community that once thrived in Wynwood has seen dispersed into other neighborhoods and all interests in those areas should look into how they can continue to attract and, most importantly, retain these cultural stewards.

There’s always the possibility that the arts in Wynwood could rebound, but that seems unlikely now that those who left have found long-term homes elsewhere. Now Wynwood faces an identity crisis and community leaders are faced with an important question: What is Wynwood and who is this neighborhood for?

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